One of the pure joys of being a college professor in my D.C. dotage is having former students and their friends — now mostly in government — reach out for advice. As I have been in the intelligence game for four decades, most of them these days ask about Ukraine and what we intelligence guys did in the “old days” that helped win the Cold War.
So, I tell them. Some things worked. Some things didn’t. It took a long time. And victory was not achieved by intelligence alone. It’s often not the response they want to hear — but it is the truth. Intelligence has its fine uses and its distinct limits. Ukraine is no exception.
James Bond had good writers
I am often asked about why we don’t have better human intelligence? Isn’t it a waste of time? Well, let me say: We always have had good human intelligence and excellent collectors. What we don’t have are people willing to roll over like a Bond movie henchman and spill the beans.
The term used to describe Russia is “hard target.” And by a hard target I mean the SVR/FSB/GRU spying mechanism is huge, worldwide, and ubiquitous, especially in Russia. They keep an eye on their people and home turf. You can’t meet Vesper Lynn in a bar and get the goods on the evil mastermind Ernst Blofeld. It takes years of determining what sources are good and who are not — and meeting clandestinely with the opposition on your tail.
Add to that another factor: Dictators like Vladimir Putin don’t sit around like Dr. Evil (if I may throw another movie in) planning aloud his next move. Few know what’s in his head — and perhaps, he himself may not be sure. Either way, getting to the leadership is nearly impossible, and the information you do get is likely filtered through different levels of direct access and the always-present biases. Not easy, but gold when you get it.
There are no crystal balls
My former students are also quick to judge intelligence analysis. Why did we overestimate the strength of the Russian army? Why can’t we tell how sick Putin is? When will he be overthrown? Why don’t we use more open-source information — cyber space is filled with information like this … don’t you guys read it?
Of course there are enormous amounts of information available on Ukraine. More in this war than perhaps any other in my lifetime. TikTok, Tweets, and Instagram directly from the front lines. And analysts, like judges, do read the paper. But — and this comes from a guy who ran private sector analysis companies — more information does not necessarily mean better.
And there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what an analyst does. Analysts estimate. They approximate. They speak in levels of confidence. They sort through vast caverns of information. They are not sooth seers who predict the future. And no one — in my 40 years — has ever come across a single report of any kind that says “John Doe will be standing on the corner of 16th and L, and at 15:30 hours he will detonate a belt bomb filled with nails.” You are most likely to get a dozen separate and slightly contradictory reports from several sources vaguely describing each aspect of the event. A puzzle wrapped in a fog.
Rambo did not win Afghanistan
And then there is covert action, a subject everyone likes to bring up but few really understand. “Rambo III.” “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Hollywood shapes the subject. Sadly, reality does not have good scriptwriters.
Simply put: A covert action is an order issued by the president — and briefed to the Congress — addressing a particular international political issue and outlining U.S. Government actions short of the use of direct military force.
In warfare, covert action is not full-scale warfare. The brave French resistance did not win the war: Allied troops invading France did. America’s covert actions in Afghanistan gave the Mujahadeen a fighting chance. Ultimately, a number of factors that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union caused Russia to quit the war in Afghanistan.
Covert action is about training and financing partisans. It is about arming them, showing them how to use the arms — and hoping you can keep the weapons under control and find the unused ones after the war. There’s a big, lucrative black market out there for weapons.
But, covert action is also about coordinating actions within the U.S. Government and our Allies to support the effort. Economic and political sanctions, effectively countering propaganda — these too are part of a success program.
And none of this happens immediately. The first Afghanistan conflict lasted over a decade; some of our efforts were made successful because we had been pressing on the USSR for four decades. Ukraine will be the same.
The spice in the soup
In the final analysis — as I tell my now disillusioned, but I hope wiser students — intelligence is the spice in the policy soup: necessary and important, but not the soup itself. It can gather excellent sources, but it cannot be expected to reach into the minds of dictators like Putin. Intelligence analysis is predictive and estimative; it succeeds sometime and fails others. And covert action is meant to inflict pain and influence the outcome, but not win the war.
So, my ultimate lesson for my former students is this: With all our foreign policy tools, including intelligence, it will take time, persistence, diligence, and stamina to win in Ukraine. We’ve done it before. It can be done again.
Ronald A. Marks is a former CIA officer who served as Senate liaison for five CIA Directors and intelligence counsel to two Senate Majority Leaders. He currently is president of ZPN Cyber and National Security Strategies, a non-resident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center at The Atlantic Council and visiting professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.